|Talk About Teaching and Learning
February 19, 2013,
Volume 59, No. 22
Sharing A Discovery of Connection
A positive student course evaluation will often cite the instructor’s “enthusiasm” as a significant factor in the overall learning experience. A search through my own evaluations found the word “enthusiasm” frequently followed by affirming references to “motivation” or “fun.” Though it certainly feels good to read kind words in course reviews, as educators we also would like to know that the ultimate effect of the perceived enthusiasm is improved learning: greater breadth, depth, retention or some combination of all of these. There is indeed academic research that confirms that enthusiastic teaching has clear positive effects on a variety of quantitative measures of learning outcomes . But how can teachers manipulate their enthusiasm to harness these potentially beneficial effects?
I think we should let the outward expressions of enthusiasm, such as body language and facial expressions, take their natural course and focus instead on the internal sources of our passions. Despite our great diversity of experience and expertise, Penn faculty share a nearly universal zeal for the spirit of discovery. This spirit is a driving force behind the ground-breaking research across all disciplines at the University. Because graduate students participate directly in the research enterprise, interactions in upper-level courses tend quite naturally to be exciting and engaging for everyone involved. How do we achieve this same sense of wonder early in the undergraduate curriculum, where the students are only just beginning to understand key concepts and methods?
The students may have opportunities for genuine discovery, but for faculty, there is a risk that the lectures seem simplistic and mundane, particularly after several years of repetition, leading to anything but an enthusiastic presentation.
2011 MEAM Bicycle Bridge Tour
One simple and specific action that I have found to be especially useful for sustaining my own enthusiasm in an established undergraduate course is adding a novel story or example to an existing lecture. Avoid narrow constraints on what constitutes a proper source or type of example. If you teach a technical discipline, be on the lookout for potentially interesting examples while reading new or classic fiction. I find that a “random walk” on the internet, perhaps sparked by a news story or personal observation, is often a very fruitful method for finding new stories to tell. Remember, your lectures already have world-class content; you are merely looking for a different lens through which to view that content. The objective here is to be sure that you, as the instructor, are learning something completely new—making some sort of personal discovery—that you will share with your students.
Not long ago, I saw the power of this technique in action from the perspective of a student. Before I came to Penn as a lecturer in 2007, I worked for more than a decade at Boeing Rotorcraft near the airport in Philadelphia. We had a lot of on-the-job training, much of it necessary, if quite forgettable. But during one lunchtime short-course, a lecture given by a brilliant colleague, David G. Miller, was most memorable. Dave’s goal was to explain two things: first, why computers would not fully replace pilots in military aircraft; and second, why the difficulty that a pilot has flying a helicopter is so fundamental. Contrary to the usual engineering approach, the lecture was not a dry nor mathematical discourse, but a gripping narrative. Dave weaved his two main points into a brilliantly crafted story linking a heroic bus driver, the 19th-century Phillies ace William “Kid” Gleason , and the practical consequences of the pitcher’s mound being moved 15 feet further from home plate. When I asked Dave where the story had come from, he told me that he put it together from information he had found online.
No one who heard Dave’s lecture that day would soon forget his two main points. It is tempting to believe that this is merely the result of how clever the lecture had been. But I think it is because of how passionately the lecture was delivered. Dave was sharing a discovery with us. Not a technical or scientific discovery, but a discovery of connection—how diverse and keen interests in his own life were related in an almost magical way. Such discoveries are just waiting to be made, and enthusiastically shared, whenever highly knowledgeable, actively engaged and intellectually curious people make the time to search.
One great facet of this approach is that it is easily adapted to the time available. I often spend only an hour or so to find something fresh for a tired lecture. But “following the scent” of a good story can also take you on much longer journeys of discovery as well. In the summer of 2011, I was updating some notes for an especially dry lecture on the structure of airplane wings. The notes already included a 1919 photograph of a Fokker D8 aircraft in which the workers at the factory in Amsterdam were sitting on the wing to vividly demonstrate its strength. A short web search revealed a compelling backstory: the original design had suffered multiple sudden and catastrophic wing failures, and the cause of the disasters was widely disputed. After a good deal more surfing, I came across a lay textbook on structures  that promised to provide a clear resolution of the underlying design flaw. And indeed it did. But the discovery was not yet complete, because the book also contained fascinating expositions on the design and construction of all types of bridges, presented with enthralling prose and fascinating historical context. I was hooked, finishing the book in only a few days.
The next weekend, while on a recreational bicycle ride with my family, I came upon the Falls Bridge, crossing the Schuylkill river. Though I had crossed the bridge many times before, my eyes had been newly opened: this bridge exhibited, in plain view and on a grand scale, many of the key ideas that we try to teach engineering sophomores about mechanics and structures. After finishing the ride, I went back to the internet to discover the fascinating history surrounding the many bridge crossings of the Schuylkill River northwest of Center City. A few months later, the first annual MEAM Bicycle Bridge Tour was underway, with more than 40 faculty and students sharing a voluntary journey of discovery along Kelly Drive, admiring steel girders, stone arches and Pratt trusses, all while enjoying the beauty of a crisp autumn morning. I’m confident that Bridge Tour participants will find themselves admiring bridges and thinking about static equilibrium and buckling loads, long after their formal educations are complete.
Of course, not every search for an interesting story leads to a journey of this scope, nor does it need to in order to be effective. But even a cursory search will often reignite the spark of discovery that fuels passionate and enthusiastic teaching.
 For example, Rosenshine, Barak, “Enthusiastic Teaching: A Research Review,” The School Review, 78:4, August, 1970.
 Kid Gleason is the Phillies pitcher with the most wins (38) in a single season (1890).
 Gordon, J.E., Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, Penguin, 1978.
Bruce Kothmann is a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) and the recipient of the SEAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2010 as well as the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing Faculty in 2012.
This essay continues the series by the Center for Teaching & Learning that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.